Does Prenatal Maternal Distress Contribute to Sex Differences in Child Psychopathology?


Purpose of Review

Prenatal maternal psychological distress is an established risk factor for the development of psychopathology in offspring. The purpose of this review is to evaluate whether sex differences in fetal responses to maternal distress contribute to sex differences in subsequent psychopathology.

Recent Findings

Male and female fetuses respond differently to stress signals. We review recent evidence that demonstrates a sex-specific pattern of association between prenatal maternal distress and pathways associated with risk for psychopathology including offspring hypothalamic pituitary adrenocortical (HPA) axis regulation, brain development, and negative emotionality.


Prenatal maternal distress exerts sex-specific consequences on the fetus. These differences may contribute to the well-established sex differences in psychopathology and in particular to greater female vulnerability to develop internalizing problems.

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This work supported by the National Institutes of Health [R01 MH 109662; RO1 HD065823; P50MH 096889].

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Correspondence to Elysia Poggi Davis.

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Hicks, L.M., Swales, D.A., Garcia, S.E. et al. Does Prenatal Maternal Distress Contribute to Sex Differences in Child Psychopathology?. Curr Psychiatry Rep 21, 7 (2019).

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  • Prenatal
  • Stress
  • Sex differences
  • Depression
  • Development
  • Psychopathology